After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber. John 18:38-40 | ESV
Pilate stepped back outside to the awaiting council members, telling them curtly, “I can’t lay one single charge at this man’s feet. So, look, it’s your custom during Passover to release a single prisoner. What do you say I release to you this ‘King of the Jews’”? But they roared back at him yet again, “No! Not him, but Barabbas (‘son of the father’)!” And Barabbas? Well, he was a thieving, rabid insurrectionist.
MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
If, in fact, this is the voice of the people asking for Barabbas over Jesus, it’s clearly not democracy’s finest hour. Even the jaded politician sees more clearly.
Barabbas. “Son of the father.”
What a delicious irony.
But this “son of the father” was no Jesus – he was a lestes (lay-stace). It’s hard to capture the derision with which John spits out that word. John had used a related word for Judas when he told of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet in Bethany. There he said Judas was a kleptes (clep-tace). A kleptes is someone who steals in stealth. “Nobody robs a bank with everyone watching” says the Proverb. That’s kleptes work. Pickpocket. Slip in, slip out, no one gets hurt.
The lestes blows up the bank. Preferably when it’s full of people – because it’s not just about the money, the stuff. It’s about power, control, fear. The Roman word for such was sicarri – dagger men, the “slicers” – from the word sicae or “dagger” that zealot “patriots” would carry under their cloaks to murder political opponents at close range and then blend back into crowd.
We would call them assassins.
And two of them hung on each side of Jesus before this day was done. We often observe that Barabbas is merely standing in for us in this scene. And it’s a fair cop, isn’t it? We might try to con ourselves and each other that we really are some of the nicest people, after all, but each of us must own Barabbas. Yes, our face is here too. Which is what makes Paul’s celebration of Divine love in Romans 5 such breathtakingly good news:
He didn’t, and doesn’t, wait for us to get ready. He presented himself for this sacrificial death when we were far too weak and rebellious to do anything to get ourselves ready. And even if we hadn’t been so weak, we wouldn’t have known what to do anyway. We can understand someone dying for a person worth dying for, and we can understand how someone good and noble could inspire us to selfless sacrifice. But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him.
Imagine that. Inspired to selfless sacrifice.
By a rapid insurrectionist like me, like you.
Meditate on Romans 5:6-8. How much energy do you spend trying to be worthy of his love, his sacrifice, rather than embracing your own unworthiness? What’s the key to giving up trying to be “worthy”?
Lord, let me not hide my face from nor foolishly try to layer religious make-up on my own wretchedness, my own inner “rabid insurrectionist.” Let me see in this very wretchedness the ground zero of your grace that changes all, that changes me. Through Jesus.
Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” John 18:37-38 | ESV
“Ah, so you are a king then after all!” Pilate shot back.
“‘I am a king.’ That’s how you put it. I would say that my whole reason for existence, for being here in this world, is to bear clear witness to the truth, the heart of all reality. Everyone who has a heart for the truth hears my voice,” Jesus carefully replied.
Pilate waved him off. “What in the world is truth?!?” MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
Your turn today. What an awesome question left hanging in this text as Pilate walks away uncomprehending. Use the space below and jot down what you see as you contemplate the question “What is truth?” Reflect on the passage. Write down what you hear, see, and sense. There are no right answers. There’s only what you see and hear. Write it. Draw it. Try it.
How would you answer Pilate’s question: “What is truth?”
Lord, give me a heart wide open to the heart of all reality, a heart beating to the rhythms of truth rather than mere convention or habit or heritage. Through Jesus.
So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” John 18:33-36 | ESV
Pilate left the council members standing on the steps, and went inside the praetorium, summoning Jesus to follow him, and then he put it to Jesus straight: “Are you the king of the Jews?”
Jesus calmly asked, “Is this your question, or are you just repeating what others have said to you about me?”
“Do I look like a Jew to you? It’s your own people and priestly class that have put you in my hands.
So what did you do?”
Jesus paused. “My reign, my dominion doesn’t merely occupy a rival place on the map of this jaded world system. If it did, then my followers would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish high counsel, wouldn’t they? So it’s clear that we’re talking about two different dominions/dimensions!”
MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
“My kingdom is not of this world.”
So easy to take this as a permission slip for us to withdraw, to hide in a spiritual retreat, cloistered with wagging fingers and folded hands as we await our divine lift out of this world into heavenly realms divorced from this earthy, unwieldy, messy existence. But make no mistake. Jesus was standing in this hall of power because his life and message confronted it to the core. This isn’t just a story about two competing loyalties, one below and one above, one terrestrial and the other celestial, as if Jesus were telling Pilate, “Relax, I’m no threat to you or to Rome. I’m talking about heaven later.”
It’s about two different ways of putting the world together.
The heart of Jesus’ life and message is the kingdom – reign, dominion, presence – of God, and it’s not out or up there, but planted and sown down here. “The field is the world” and that’s where the seed is sown, pushing through our scavenging birds, our barrenness, our weeds, our thorns. That’s why disciples are taught to pray “your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” – as opposed to “get us out of here!”
Sometimes we summarize this tension by saying we are in the world but not of it. Would that we handled such tension more wisely. How ironic that those bearing heavenly “not of this world” banners can end up waving them over their own religious/political domination systems that are so very “of this world.” Slapping “Jesus” on our platform doesn’t make it kingdom.
He confronts us as he did Pilate and Pharisee alike: God has a new way of putting the world together called the kingdom of God, and it’s breaking in. It’s not a competing domain. It’s another dimension that doesn’t dominate but permeates – like seed planted in earth, or yeast in dough.
Which usually makes as much sense to us as it did to Pilate on that day.
Practically speaking, how do you handle this tension of being “in” the world but not “of” it? How does it show in your life?
Abba, let your kingdom come, let your will be done, as in heaven, so in this earth. Here. This day. Through Christ.
So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” They answered him, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die. John 18:29-32 | ESV
“What charge do you bring against this man?” he demanded.
They equivocated in their response. “Trust us. If this man weren’t a lawbreaker, we wouldn’t have brought him to you.”
Pilate would have none of it. “This is your business, not mine. Handle this yourselves in your own court.”
“But we can’t execute anyone legally,” they objected.
All of this political maneuvering was only setting the stage for Jesus to die the way he had been saying and picturing it would happen all along. MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
“In fact they did meet – Herod and Pontius Pilate with nations and peoples, even Israel itself! – met in this very city to plot against your holy Son Jesus, the One you made Messiah, to carry out the plans you long ago set in motion.” (Acts 4:27-28)
What an intriguing dance this – human posturing and plotting meeting on the same dance floor with Divine purpose.
I do not understand that.
But there it is.
Greed, betrayal, fear, cold calculation, sly equivocation, political manipulation resulting more in cacophony than symphony, more UFC bloodbath than graceful dance, leaving us wanting to retch in disgust – but the Divine motion is here. Not despite, not in spite, but through these raw, jagged thrusts themselves.
This is nothing new to any thoughtful observer of the sweeping Old Testament narrative. Yes, there are bright stars of faith, hope and love in the biblical story, but they shine in a dark night sky of lies, intrigue, betrayal, abuse, and murder. Game of Thrones enjoys immense popularity in our current culture, while others cluck their tongues calling it exploitative, violent, sexist, explicit, and dark – a story “corrosive to the soul.” And yet that is precisely how I hear others reacting to the biblical story as they turn their noses up at the Old Testament.
What other kind of story can there be when human beings are involved?
Oh, we can make believe nicer stories with nicer people and nicer endings. But God doesn’t do his work through nice stories. Mostly. The Divine Mystery dances in our cacophonous, dark, brooding mess.
Which is very good news indeed – since few of us have nice stories to tell.
How do you reconcile divine purpose and sovereignty with the unpredictable movements of human will and initiative? Does this tension bring you comfort or just leave you with a theological headache?
Abba, when my heart gets trashed by yet another heart-rending human drama, help me to trust – and to wait for – the divine movement in the midst of it. Through Christ.
Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover. So Pilate went outside to them. John 18:28-29 | ESV
Passed from Annas to Caiaphas, Jesus is now passed from Caiaphas to Roman jurisdiction: he is sent to the praetorium – the local Roman capitol building, the headquarters of all judicial and administrative governmental functions. And the Jewish council members delivering Jesus into Roman hands wouldn’t dare put their religious purity at risk by entering heathen halls with their prisoner (they didn’t want to miss out on the Passover!). So the Roman governor, Pilate (“spear chucker” or “cloud capped”), went out to them. MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
There were at least four halls of power in which Jesus stood on his last day.
And back again.
John skips the legal posturing of the “trial” before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, and the political posturing of Jesus’ appearance before Herod. Caiaphas might have been high priest that year, but Annas was the power broker. And Pilate was the gatekeeper of life and death under the law. No matter how he tried to evade that responsibility, it clung to him. He clung to him.
So little we know about this man, this Pilate. In fact, most of what we do know about him we know from these pages of John’s Gospel. What we do gather from history outside these pages is that he was a politician, he was a pragmatist, and he could be ruthless. “Spear Chucker” as a meaning for his name would seem quite appropriate. But then, judging from what we see here, so does the alternate proposed meaning “Cloud Capped.”
All is not as clear as we think.
We tend to be so dualistic in how we weigh and view one another – or ourselves for that matter. Gathering up the other historical breadcrumbs about Pilate, many assemble the whole loaf and call it quite moldy, scoffing at John’s glimpse into a more layered human being. But we are all layered, and even the most brutal can be stopped in their tracks and reveal some yet lingering humanity.
A thoughtful glance at these passion pages will reveal our own face in these faces.
The betrayed and abused Jesus; scared and fleeing disciples; the religious types so careful to step around ritual defilement in the very act of murder; and the political pragmatist wanting to stay aloof who has a very hard time indeed not letting this Jesus in.
Whose face today is God challenging you to move beyond the surface, beyond the caricature of them carried in your mind’s eye, and to really see?
Lord, deliver me from snap judgments and cursory dismissals, and give me your eyes to see others today – to really see them. Through Jesus.
The high priest then questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me what I said to them; they know what I said.” When he had said these things, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” Jesus answered him, “If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?” Annas then sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest. John 18:19-24 | ESV
Meanwhile the unofficial high priest (Annas) began his examination of Jesus, inquiring into his followers and asking about his teaching. Jesus was direct. “I with perfect clarity spoke right out in the open – I always taught in open forums, whether in synagogue or in temple courts where all our people gather and listen. I never used private chat rooms. So since it’s all a matter of public record, why are you asking me? Just ask any of the multitudes of people who were there because they know exactly what I said.” No sooner had he said this than the guard standing closest to him gave him a hard backhanded slap. “Is that how you speak to the high priest?” he spat. Jesus was nonplussed. “If I misspoke, please tell me how. Otherwise, why the slap?” Annas could see he wasn’t going to get anywhere with him, so he sent him, still bound, to Caiaphas, the acting high priest. MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
Your turn. Write what you see in this brief snippet of the Story. Reflect on the passage. Write down what you hear, see, and sense. There are no right answers. There’s only what you see and hear. Write it. Draw it. Try it.
What is your response when someone (or life in general) literally or figuratively slaps you? What do you learn from Jesus’ response?
Lord, show me how to creatively, wisely “turn the other cheek” when people or circumstances slap me. Show me how to hold others accountable without a narrowed, bitter spirit, but rather with a widened and ever widening spirit of grace. Through Christ.
Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in. The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself… Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, “You also are not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” One of the servants of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Peter again denied it, and at once a rooster crowed. John 18:15-18; 25-27 | ESV
Meanwhile Simon, that steady Rock, slowly slid after Jesus in the shadows, along with another disciple who shall remain unnamed – but I will say he was, shall we say, quite familiar with the high priest, and he went right on in with Jesus into the high priestly court, while Peter lingered at the door outside. Then this other disciple – the one quite familiar with the high priest – went out, vouched for Peter with the servant minding the door and led Peter inside. The servant was actually a young girl, and she eyed Peter closely as he passed. “Wait, you’re not one of his disciples too, are you?” she asked. Says he: “Nope.” Now in the courtyard the servants and staff stood around a heap of fiery coals warming themselves – it was a cold night! Peter took his stand right in the midst of them, warming himself. [Breakaway to high priestly interrogation scene and then] pan back to Simon, the steady Rock, still standing there warming himself, until they ask him a second time: “You’re not one of his disciples too, are you?” He flatly denied it again. “No way.” Leaning in closer, another servant of the high priest – this one a relative of the man (remember Malchus?) whose ear was sliced off by the Rock – challenged him a third time, “Wait a minute, didn’t I see you in the garden with him?” But the Rock stood firm with another denial – and no sooner had he done so than the rooster crowed his accusatory tune. MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
Paul wrote those words, but I have no doubt that Peter would own them. Even as he owned what turned about to be the centerpiece story of his life: his threefold denial of Christ.
Yes, Peter denied Jesus.
A little girl made him do it.
And the tattling rooster crow echoes after him through all of time.
It’s the main event on that compilation reel of Peter’s failures. Why is this story so painstakingly retold, so mercilessly recounted blow by blow, denial by denial, in each of the gospels? The premier disciple, the founding stone of the church that Jesus would build, is cracked – at least three times.
It takes me to the heavenly Jerusalem. Twelve foundation stones of that celestial city. And the names on those foundation stones? The twelve apostles. We don’t even know anything about most of them (major lesson there too!) – but considering that the one we do know the most about was so cracked and flawed, maybe we really don’t want to know about the others!
There are also pictured twelve gates of that city, like twelve great pearls. And the names on them? The twelve tribes of Israel. Great. Now let’s flash all of that illustrious and sordid Old Testament history on the wall!
If such flawed humanity serves as the foundation stones of the city and composes the raw materials for the pearly gates themselves, then what does that say about those who would live there? Perhaps this provides our most important takeaway from Peter’s denials: not that we should try not to fail as he did, but to rest assured that we will, sooner or later, and his grace is sufficient. Which means he doesn’t just cover over our mess. He turns it into the gold that will line the streets in that City where the former things have passed away.
What is your primary take away from the story of Peter’s denial of Christ? Why?
Lord, you turned and looked into the eyes of Peter when denial was fresh on his lips. Help me to see and receive that gaze myself in the midst of my own stumbling and fumblings – and to embrace the empowering grace in it. Amen.